Very often, it is not necessary to teach the history behind Shakespeare’s plays to enjoy them in the classroom. It is merely enough to speak the words, explore the text, and get to know the characters.
If possible, however, the influence of monarchs on Shakespeare’s plays can be just as interesting.
How is Macbeth a dramatization of the Gunpowder Plot? Why was a certain scene in Richard II banned from performance? Why did the play Henry VIII end with praise for baby Elizabeth and not a beheading? Why do we now remember Richard III as a hunchbacked murderer?
And why, for goodness sake, did he write Merry Wives of Windsor?
Because the royals requested it.
Last night I saw a performance from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Bill Cain’s highly acclaimed Equivocation, which – through fiction – explores the dangerous but necessary link between politics and art, and how they each influence each other. I left with my head buzzing around things I’d never considered about the two. Their study materials were a very interesting read (if a bit high-scholarly).
If the means are available, consider the history behind the plays’ performances. What was the political state at the time? Who was on the throne? Who had caused a scandal at court? What was happening in London (or made world news) at that time? Elizabeth I and James I both had a noticeable influence on what Shakespeare wrote about, and how his plays were received.
I would love to hear if anyone’s done a student project on anything like this before – and what was gleaned from it. Or perhaps it could be fun for the few students left in your classrooms the day before Thanksgiving to read up on the history around the play you’re studying this semester and create a timeline or parallel guide to the fact and the fiction. Has anyone done any lessons on these links before, or plan to?
Read Full Post »
Students in our High School Fellowship program are studying Henry VIII, Pericles, and Richard III this year. One of my colleagues in the Education Division described the plays to potential students in the program as being among Shakespeare’s “lesser known gems.” Richard III is most likely better known and more often staged than either Pericles or Henry VIII, so the designation probably holds true for two of the three. All of the plays have something to recommend them for study. So, why don’t we teach these “lesser known gems” more often?
Read Full Post »
After an incredible summer with the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, the Folger has been overtaken by Tudor-mania! The current exhibition, Vivat Rex!, commemorates the 500th anniversary of Henry’s ascension to the throne of England, and the Theatre is rehearsing Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, also known as All is True.
With all the pop-culture fervor for the polygamist king, it seems fitting that Shakespeare, too, made a contribution to the dramatic life of Henry VIII – what would have been fairly recent history to his audience. Why, though, is the original title of the play All is True?
The play covers events which took place between 1521 (with the arrest of the Duke of Buckingham) and 1536 (the death of Katherine of Aragon), but condenses the timeline so it all happens almost at once, with most of the action taking place off-stage and being described by courtly gentlemen. The characters in the play appear differently than we’re used to history portraying them. For example, Anne Boleyn (Bullen, in the play) declares vehemently that she would never want to be queen, though she marries Henry a few short scenes later.
We can’t argue with the outcomes of the events in the play – Buckingham was executed as a traitor, Katherine was disposed as Henry’s first wife, Anne did marry Henry – but we can re-imagine how they could have happened, if only for one play. If we were to write a play about recent history today, how would we tell it? What sort of politics or events would we gloss over to tell the story?
For more about the production, or activities for this play, visit the Study Guide!
Read Full Post »